A year after I got cancer, my friend was diagnosed, and my son, who was 6 at the time, asked me “Mom, did you give it to her?” I said “No Josh, I didn’t.”
It was 10 years ago that I found myself in a life-and-death battle literally out of nowhere. My doctor found a lump on a routine annual gyn exam that I almost cancelled. I had had a mammogram seven months prior and they said everything was fine.
Over the course of the next few years, I endured eight surgeries, chemotherapy and two rounds of radiation. At the time, my kids were ages 3, 5, 8 and 11. My 3-year-old wasn’t even signed up for school yet and I had no household help.
At first, I told no one, and it felt like the weight of the world on my shoulders. I played catch with my 3-year-old in the backyard and although I was going through the motions, all I kept thinking about was how I was going to survive. When I finally decided to tell people what was going on, I no longer suffered alone. Friends and people I barely new came out and helped me and my family. When my kids asked why people kept bringing us food, coming over and calling, we explained that this is what it means to be part of a caring Jewish community, whose values stem from the Torah. We hoped that they would learn from this experience, and one day, help others.
During my cancer years, I never felt sorry for myself or asked, “Why me?” At first, I was really scared. I started cleaning the attic so no one would find a mess if I died. But at some point, I knew I would survive. I kept a smile on my face and focused on getting through each day. I was fighting a war and I gave it everything I had. I counted the number of years I had to live until my last kid turned 18, and I just pushed through. I stayed positive, kept a sense of humor and tried to be normal for my kids. I came home from chemo, put on my wig and took my little one for a walk in the stroller. I shoveled snow, helped with homework and put the kids to bed, like every other parent, even though I could barely sit in a chair. I kept my distance from anyone who appeared to feel sorry for me, even those in my own family. I needed to stay strong and that meant surrounding myself with people who made me laugh and lived in the present.
Losing my hair was the absolute most humiliating experience of my life. When I could no longer stand to watch it fall out in clumps bit by bit, I decided to shave my head and get it over with. I was too embarrassed to go to my own hairdresser, so I took my 3- and 5-year-olds with me one day to Georgia’s Hair Salon. The barber gave me privacy behind the curtain in the corner and proceeded to shave my head. When it was done, I tried to pay, and they wouldn’t take my money. Afterwards, two of my kids said they still loved me, even though I had no hair. The other two… not so much.
When I started chemo, I thought it would be better to be in a private room. I soon learned that it was much more fun to sit with all the other cancer patients. Together, we talked, joked and shared horror stories and snacks. We read, we laughed, we cried and we slept. Whatever problem I had, someone had it worse. We helped each other, side-by-side, young and old, strangers in life, bonding over cancer.
The most profound help I received from my community was when someone showed up at my door one day, with a housekeeper. If they had asked me if I needed help, I would definitely have said “No thank you” but they were smart enough not to ask. They took up a collection to pay the housekeeper’s salary for a few weeks. They understood, even before I did, that I would need help at home with four kids under age 11. This offer was hard to refuse. I ended up employing this housekeeper for the next three years, and it literally saved me. I don’t know how I would have gotten through those years without household help.
Along the way, I received strength and guidance from other brave and heroic woman who had been through similar experiences. Through Sharsheret, an organization that helps women and their families face breast cancer, I met others who understood what it was like, and we could speak about anything; no subject was too private or embarrassing. They dropped off hats and survivor paraphernalia and soon became my cancer sisters. We had a secret language through shared pain and experience. Strangers, whose names I barely knew, showed me kindness. Other survivors bared their souls and even pulled up their shirts to show me their latest reconstruction results in public bathrooms and doctor’s offices. My cancer friends and I could make death jokes and laugh at them and I didn’t have to hide or feel ashamed about anything.
I always wanted something good to come out of getting cancer. I thought it was going to be better body parts, but it wasn’t.
It turns out my 8-year-old daughter showed me my silver lining. After cancer, I wanted nothing to do with the C word, but she had other ideas. She organized Pink Day at her school and then and she kept raising money, marching and writing speeches. She just wouldn’t let it go. For her bat mitzvah, she created a walk for breast cancer as her theme. Her actions pushed me to get involved and to give back. She taught me that anyone, even a child, could make a difference in this world, by choosing courage over comfort.
One day my rabbi, Rabbi Morgenstern, sent me a flyer about a breast cancer mentor program for newly diagnosed woman through WJCS. I felt this suggestion was a message and I immediately took action. I went through the training and I was matched with a woman who literally wanted to give up. She thought she could cure her cancer with diet and had stopped taking tamoxifen. She was uneducated and had Medicaid health insurance. Her cancer returned. It’s been five years since we were matched up and I am still her mentor even though the mentor program ended. We have never met in person, but I know how much I made a difference in her life. I pushed her to learn to drive and to join a support group and most importantly, to fight cancer. I still pray for her.
Does surviving a traumatic life experience like cancer change you? Yes it does. But only for the better. My experience made me more appreciative of my life, my family and my faith. It showed me I was strong, and very brave. It gave me a reason to help others.
My father, Rabbi Samuel Schafler, z”l, said these words in his final sermon from the bimah before he died. “To know how fragile the shell of life is, is to learn to handle it with true grace and dignity. Only one who realizes his own vulnerability and the vulnerability of his loved ones can treasure every moment with them.”
Sukkot is a holiday to take action and find joy. In the Sukkah, together with friends and family, we recount our blessings and appreciate nature and our environment. We go outside together rich or poor, all as equals, and smell the fragrances of our lives. We take care of each other in our spiritual home. Sukkot reminds us that we can only experience real happiness when we are satisfied with what we have and find gratitude and acceptance for what we’ve been given. True joy is only found when we are fulfilling a worthwhile purpose. This thought is suggested in the following simple verse:
I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see
I sought my God, but my God eluded me
I sought my sister, and I found all three.
We all go through hard times in our lives and when it’s over we always remember how truly lucky we are. Life’s challenges make us stronger and more resilient, more appreciative and more alive.
I learned that sometimes on the way to a dream, you get lost and find a better one. If you believe in yourself, you know that there is something inside you that is greater than any obstacle.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe said, “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and what is ugly in the world, then it is you yourself that needs repair.”
Life is about the ability to get up from challenge. The Torah defines a righteous person, not as someone who has succeeded, but as someone who has persevered. Remember this as you go about your journey.
In recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I will be speaking at the Beth El of New Rochelle’s Sukkah on Monday, October 9, from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. A kosher brunch will be served. There is no charge to attend the event. The synagogue is located at 1324 North Avenue, New Rochelle, at the intersection of Quaker Ridge Road.
By Rena Schafler Hyman
Rena Hyman, the mother of four children, was diagnosed with breast cancer when her oldest was 11 years old and her youngest was 3. Believing it would give strength and hope to others, she has since shared her remarkable story with audiences around New York including Sharsheret and SAR in Riverdale. She guides new breast cancer patients at the Center for Breast Reconstruction in NYC. She co-chaired the White Plains Hospital Synagogue Symposium on Breast Health at Temple Israel Center. Hyman was featured in UJA Federation News for her work as a mentor for the Westchester Jewish Community Services Breast Cancer Navigator program.